When public anger can prompt the collection of better data

I’ve seen this argument several places, including this AP story: collecting national data about fatalities due to police would be helpful.

To many Americans, it feels like a national tidal wave. And yet, no firm statistics can say whether this spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media.

“We have a huge scandal in that we don’t have an accurate count of the number of people who die in police custody,” says Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a leading scholar on policing and civil liberties. “That’s outrageous.”…

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, for instance, track justifiable police homicides – there were 1,688 between 2010 and 2013 – but the statistics rely on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies and are incomplete. Circumstances of the deaths, and other information such as age and race, also aren’t required.

The Wall Street Journal, detailing its own examination of officer-involved deaths at 105 of the nation’s 110 largest police departments, reported last week that federal data failed to include or mislabeled hundreds of fatal police encounters…

Chettiar is hopeful that recent events will create the “political and public will” to begin gathering and analyzing the facts.

A few quick thoughts:

1. Just because this data hasn’t been collected doesn’t necessarily mean this was intentional. Government agencies collect lots of data but it takes some deliberate action and foresight regarding what should and shouldn’t be reported. Given that there are a least a few hundred such deaths each year, you would think someone would have flagged such information as interesting but apparently not. Now would be a good time to start reporting and collecting such data.

2. Statistics would be helpful in providing a broader perspective on the issue but, as the article notes, statistics have certain kinds of persuasive power as do individual events or broad narratives not necessarily backed by statistics. In our individualistic culture, specific stories can often go a long ways. At the same time, social problems are often defined by their scope which involves statistical measures of how many people are affected.

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